QuanTech Industries was founded in 1991 by a handful of particle physicists whose early research into the effects of quantum states, specifically in the excitement of certain subatomic particles, showed promise in numerous fields ranging from high-energy research to construction equipment. Though capital was forthcoming, it was not plentiful, and some of their experiments and prototypes would have made millions had they had the resources to perfect them.
But in 1995, they obtained a number of new engineers to work on some of their more obscure concepts, and projects which had once been jokes at Appel were now being feared at Mikrosoft. Most central were two projects: Neural Interfacing and Polarized High-Energy Laser Concepts. Though the main researcher quit only a year later, the early success was still there, and both projects yielded floods of applications—NI was responsible for a brain-mapping technique now being used for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, and out of PHELC grew an industrial laser which was used in nearly every factory in the world. Off the royalties alone QuanTech now made billions every month. There was not one board member without at least two yachts.
Now it was the 21st century, and QuanTech, the top of the heap in 1996, was falling faster than mere gravity could pull it. Capital was everywhere, but new projects were no longer bearing the same fruits. The company owned three facilities—one near Los Alamos, one in Dallas, and one just outside Billberg—but none had shown any new research in months. They hadn’t had a new product in eighteen months—long enough for rigor mortis in the industry.
"Run it again."
The picture had to be faked, he thought. Frame one, the lab’s empty—frame two, there were two people and what looked to be a rectangle in the room. No jump at all. Time stamp matches up on both ends, and that couldn’t be faked externally.
Gordon W. Distal was chief of security at QuanTech, and he knew that this footage was going to be key in making his job permanently in the past tense. Particularly when it was being shown to one of the board, the one said to be most trigger-happy when it came to layoffs. His office was a transplant from Versailles, but with projection equipment that threw plasma into a cocked hat. Currently it was engaged in playing the footage.
The sound came up. There was a horrible screeching noise for several seconds; the directional mikes put it as coming from the rectangle. Another screech, this one with a different tone and coming from the girl. Then the rectangle moved—it made the camera jerk uncontrollably, trying to follow something which was one dimension away from normal.
Then you heard the girl speak normally. "He says that this is part of it. At least, I think it is. It’s not very clear…"
"Anything important in what they’re saying?" said the man from the board.
Gordon swallowed. "It doesn’t seem so, sir. The man mentions what he knows about us, then the girl says something again to the—the thing—"
"Do we have any details on how they did it?"
"Just what you see on the tape, sir." Gordon W. Distal queued it up, not that there was much to see. First it was there, and then it was not there, without any intervening states. Then the alarm went off, and they were all gone.
The man from the board watched attentively. "Pull up what we have on those two."
Gordon tapped the keys of the remote. Images appeared, fairly sharp color face pics of the two, taken off the cameras direct. The man was fat, poorly shaven, large-nosed. The girl was his exact opposite, short, thin and—Gordon had to admit—fairly attractive. Both looked to be young, probably late teens or early twenties. College students, maybe. A small list next to the images gave eye color, hair color, approximate height and weight.
The man from the board frowned. "Anything more? Stray hairs? Fingerprints?"
"No hairs, sir; they weren’t around long enough to leave any. And no fingerprints, either." Gordon shifted uncomfortably. "Not exactly."
The man from the board tapped his fingers impatiently. "What, then?"
Gordon sighed. "Noseprints."
"The man leaned against the glass and smudged it." Gordon showed the man from the board the portion of footage. "It’s not much, but we might be able to do some basic gene mapping."
"Assuming his DNA is on file, of course."
"Which is a rather large assumption."
Gordon W. Distal sprouted sweat. "It is, sir."
The man from the board leaned forward and steepled his fingers. "So large as to be almost useless. So I recommend ignoring the DNA."
"It won’t be worth our time. I want you to concentrate on matching the visuals. Those two do not look like professionals. They look like locals. College kids playing with their video editing toys." The man from the board waved his hand at the screen. "We have their faces. That will be enough for Vina."
Gordon nodded vigorously. "Yes, sir. Shall we start right away?"
The man from the board stared at Gordon W. Distal coldly, half-lidded eyes like glaciers. He could feel the stare coming out the back of his neck.
"That box," he said finally, "represents a jump in technology comparable to moving from coal burners to fusion reactors. It is a twenty-year head start on the market. It is trillions of dollars in solid profit. It is a quantum leap ahead. So when you ask me when I want that box back, my answer is that I want it never to have been stolen in the first place."
Gordon W. Distal blinked the sweat out of his eyes. "Yes, sir."
The man from the board leaned back in his chair, which probably cost as much as the room. "Tell Vina I want her to start two hours ago. That box is the future of our entire industry. More importantly, it is our future. And I want to make sure that we have a future."
Gordon W. Distal’s shirt was plastered to his body. "Yes, sir."
The man from the board nodded to Gordon; he pivoted like a top and rushed out the door, leaving puddles of sweat as he went.
And now he had to face Vina.
Levina Susilo was part of the latest hiring trend among the top computer companies. The hacker was a relatively rare breed, in demographic terms—a tenth of a tenth of a percent, a micron-thin slice of a mile-wide pie. But within that slice of the pie was the specific species of hacker that viewed corporate pages as creatures to be dissected. And their lack of numbers was balanced by their malice—they cracked sites like eggs and burned servers up like oily rags in Vesuvius. But with wave after wave of attacks finally came the realization: that hackers could be assets as well.
Levina was a prodigy, a electron jockey whiz-kid bit-pusher who learned how to punch keys before she could walk. She had crumpled over three thousand sites, each of them carefully crafted and exquisitely coded, and all of them in under four minutes. And that was last year only. The computer she had built was held together with string and duct tape, but ran ten times faster than anything on the market.
She had been hired by QuanTech three years ago.
Back when she was thirteen.
In the words of QuanTech’s CEO, her hiring "sure as hell violates some damn child labor law. But if we don’t tell—and we make sure she doesn’t want to tell—then it all works out fine."
This last had been met with great applause.
Levina’s life to that point had not been a happy one. Her mother was married to someone who was certainly not her father, and her early years consisted of little more than a protracted smear of pain, an indistinct presence of memory that was her truest childhood friend. Living in a possibly-stolen trailer and eating what was little better (and sometimes was) other peoples’ leftovers—it was easy to imagine a happier life. Any life.
QuanTech’s site had been hacked by Vina in early 1998, and the skill apparent in the hack had led to an all-out manhunt for the culprit. But when the traces were complete, the results were nothing short of baffling: Vina’s hacking had all taken place on the computers of the local library.
It was a shock to find that such artful work had been done off twelve-year-old machines; it was utterly staggering that it was done by a twelve-year-old.
QuanTech shoveled money into the legal department, and what could have been a protracted custody battle was cut short by some dubious claims of relation and a large out-of-court sum to her mother and father.
Vina worked for QuanTech now; she was responsible for its remaining afloat despite its stagnation. Vina had deflated a thousand rumors about QuanTech, some of which might have been true. She had started new rumors, if it suited the board, attempting to maintain the illusions. She had, once or twice, tweaked the stock, or ensured the demise of a potential competitor. She had even shut down an entire robotic assembly line by ordering the welding arms to work on each other.
And as far as Vina was concerned, it was all a game. The businessman’s answer to the question ‘why go so far?’ is ‘profit’. The engineer’s answer is ‘because it’s there.’
The hacker’s reply is a shrug and a ‘why not?’
Gordon W. Distal stepped through the elevator doors and into the disconcertingly large foyer. There was only one door. There was only one room. Taped to the door was a hand-written sign that read ‘Please buzz. Thanks!’
There were little hearts around it.
Gordon W. Distal pressed the button below the speaker. "Come in!" Vina said, brightly. Her voice made you think of slumber parties and giggles. Gordon opened the door.
Vina took the top-floor apartment because no one had the heart to take it from her. It was broadly open, full of curves and smoothness. Two walls were completely windowed; one led onto a long balcony. Vina filled this palatial chamber not only with the usual detritus of the sixteen-year-old—plush toys, a sampling of CDs, two lifetimes of clothing—but also with the detritus of the sixteen-year-old hacker—circuit boards, processors, chips and wires— plus the detritus of bleeding-edge computer equipment not even the government had access to—MEMs, biometrics, and microscopic quantum magnetic field generators. There was something odd about seeing a pink chair full of cushions with textbooks about subatomic resonance balanced on it.
Vina was in one corner of the room, typing furiously at a keyboard, sitting (of course) in a rolling office chair. "Hold on," she said to Gordon, who was feeling distinctly out of place, "I’ll be there in a sec."
She finished off what she was doing with a flourish and spun around. "There!" she said, and pushed off the desk, rolling the chair right up to Gordon. "What’s up?"
Vina had a destabilizing effect on QuanTech. None of the employees had any idea what to do with her, and those that did have ideas were swiftly and harshly fired. Vina was, after all, sixteen, and had the misfortune to be a hacker, and a genius, and extraordinarily beautiful. Fair of skin, dark of hair, large of eyes—these qualities are fabulously important in the modeling industry, but less so in the field of quantum mechanical applications. The few incidents of attempted hitting on Vina had been met with not only considerable response from management but also relative ignorance from Vina herself, who knew volumes about quantum entanglement but nothing about the emotional (or physical) variety. She was an introverted genius who could work algorithmic processes in her sleep, stuck in the body of a bubbly teenager who liked Flawson’s Stream.
(For proof of this, management liked to point out to the employees that Vina had a stack of college-level calculus textbooks next to her bed. She liked to read them at bedtime and laugh. No one yet had told her they weren’t joke books.)
Gordon, as wordlessly as he could, handed the disc to Vina. She flipped it over in her hands, slid the chair to the wall and inserted it into one of the slots. The screens around the room blazed with the faces of the two. Vina looked at them curiously.
"Who’re they?" she asked.
Gordon found his voice. "Two, uh, intruders. They stole the, the box. The new project. Project Farsight. There’s footage on the, uh, disc. We need to find them."
Vina nodded, her chin on her palm. Gordon knew that her mind was analyzing the data at superluminous speed, weighing factors and calculating error percentages in the figures given, formulating hypotheses and tabulating probabilities. All he could think about was the way her lips pouted in profile like that…
He closed his eyes and thought pure thoughts.
Vina sat up straight, finishing off the calculations. She adjusted the blanket—her legs were especially sensitive to cold—and spun over to the keyboard. Her fingers clacked busily.
Gordon cleared his throat. "So, uh…what can I tell the board?"
"I’ll have them in a day or two. Maybe three. I’ll try." She turned around and smiled at Gordon. "I’ll do my best."
Gordon restarted his brain and left. He was sweating again.
Vina turned back to the computer. Those two could wait for a while. Image searches were difficult but didn’t take very long, and she was busy with other stuff. She’d find them in the end, sure, no prob. Three days was way pessimistic. Then they’d catch those thieves…
She started typing…
AtomGrl: back again
Demon6669: no worriz. wanna chat privt?
AtomGrl: lol. sick freak
In his room, Tim smiled. Yeah, she was nice.
* * *
The world outside was still deciding whether to be day or night; the dividing divining line was still somewhere up ahead past the nose of the plane, and Kath could only catch snatches of blood-dark clouds and sunset, somewhere before her time, past a threshold she couldn’t imagine.
When Tim and Rumy had returned, Rumy had been so disturbed she had run straight off to her dorm, and no one had been able to coax her out again, or even to find out what had disturbed her, or how. Tim had had to tell them about the alien, and about QuanTech, and the mysterious little box that had something to do with everything, it seemed. It was a puzzle, true enough, but without any answers, or any idea that there even was supposed to be an answer.
Rikk had, with his usual capacity, decided that there wasn’t any need to delay Jones’ mission and immediately started making the arrangements. Kath hadn’t know she could pack in twenty minutes.
The F.I.B. had given them access to their credit line, accepted everywhere in the world, whether the owners knew it or not. Absolute last-minute tickets had been bought, at an unimaginable fee, a taxi had been called, swift goodbyes had been made, and Will and Kath were off, in a jet now somewhere between Billburg and Denver, traveling first class.
The speed with which this whole operation had been executed was boggling. Kath’s mental clock was still some few hours behind anywhere, and her body was running solely on caffeine, in a glass—an actual glass, so this was how the upper crust flew—and her eyes were tracing the darkness outside the window, still halfway between any two points on a line.
She and Will both had out a cell phone, the cell phone, the black-box paper-thin phone that looked like a piece of intricate origami but was guaranteed absolutely untraceable from any point on the globe. The F.I.B. hotline. Jones was speaking, briefing them both over a party line.
Her mind kept wandering, though, racing back to this afternoon—Rumiko running off, crying over something, but whether happy or sad, impossible to tell; Tim finding some piece of cryptic tech that baffled even his powers…and Rikk.
Rikk had changed.
At first so distraught over Alisin he could barely move, now into full gung-ho leader of the pack honorary F.I.B. G-man mode, a bigger and badder five-star general than ever before. Tattoo S.P.Q.R. on his arm and you’ve got the guard of Augustus Caesar.
What had changed?
Who had changed him?
She turned herself back to the present. Jones had spoken, in her ear, and Will was looking at her out of a quizzical eye.
"Sorry," she said, and attempted a smile. "Preemptive jet lag."
Will narrowed his eyes.
"Back to reality yet, Miss Smith?" Jones’ voice was worse over the phone, a stern schoolmaster with a ruler in his hand.
"Go on," she said, "I’m listening."
"That’s good to hear." Jones’ arching eyebrow came over the line quite clearly. "I’ve got more data for you.
"We were first aware of the group’s presence due to the transmissions they were sending, and we put them on the hot list as soon as we tried the encryption. It was heavy stuff, nine-variable biplanar, which doesn’t mean a thing to you. Suffice it to say that even now we haven’t got more than forty percent cracked. What we have has enabled us to narrow down their position a little more, and establish their situation.
"It appears to be a team of thirty, maybe forty men, with access to high quality armaments and security arrangements. The weaponry they’re using—or they say they’re using—is classified stuff, only a few years behind ours. No lasers or DNA trackers, but high-velocity projectile weapons, compiled targeting systems, cameras with ten-K grain, 3D mapping and continual scanning—the works. The head of the organization isn’t mentioned by name in any of the transmissions we’ve decrypted, but we have reason to believe it’s only one man, acting alone. Where he gets his resources and manpower is unknown."
"Anything on the weapon itself?" asked Kath. "It sounds as though all this work is going just towards guard duty."
"It does, but if they’ve said anything more about the weapon we haven’t heard it. All we have is one of the first transmission, a very broad one. We’ve traced its downlink to the Yakuza, the I.R.A., a number of Mafia families, some of the Triads and Rings, a handful of anti-U.S. groups, a bigger handful of pro-U.S. groups…anyone and everyone with an agenda. Their description said it was, quote, ‘bigger than the Bomb,’ and opened the bidding at two million American."
"They recently sent out some very large file to most of the same groups. We think it’s a video file, possibly showing the weapon, perhaps even in action. That’s the highest priority to crack; it would give us an idea of their merchandise, and maybe help us pinpoint their location as well."
"You knew they were in Colorado from the general transmission source. How’d you narrow it down?" Will asked.
"We checked sale records for general and grocery stores statewide. Six months back, a cluster of them showed a big jump in consumables, bottled water, and gasoline."
"Gasoline…then they’re off the grid? Generators?" Kath said.
"That’s our guess. Huge tanks of it, too; whatever they’re running needs a lot of juice."
"Were all these stores in Denver?"
"No, most of them were in a small town a bit west of Denver. Chevette. Meat-packing, mostly, but it’s on its last legs. Population’s dwindling, and most people just pass right through."
"Sounds perfect for their needs." Will rubbed his brow. "So they’re based in Chevette?"
"It’s their supply line, but not their headquarters. We know they’re not actually living in town—no major sales of housing, no jump in motel rooms—so we guessed they were in the Rockies, as no other towns have been housing them. Besides, it'd work to their advantage in security. Almost certainly in something subterranean, as there’s nothing on the satellite."
"Nothing. Literally nothing. We can't detect any major heat sources, possible fissures, no magnetic anomalies—but we're positive that's where they are."
"How are you so positive?"
"We noted the times of purchase at the stores, and checked at those times for cars parked out front. So far, we've matched three distinct vehicles which go on the supply runs—they leave from under the treeline of the mountains, arrive at time of purchase, and return under the trees. Here—take a look."
The phone buzzed, and Kath took it away from her ear. The tiny dialing screen had unfolded rather confusingly to form a larger screen about the size of Kath's palm. Three images flashed up—pickups, in three different colors and stages of wear.
"These are the models you'll be looking for in Chevette. The images are based off the satellite, so they should be completely accurate."
"No license plates, I notice."
"That's a problem on our end. Do you know how hard it is to take a satellite image sideways?"
The screen changed; a basic map of part of the Rockies. A large cluster of trees covered most of the image. "This is where we can track them to," Jones continued. Dozens of dashed red lines moved in to the borders of the forest and vanished. "They never take the same route in, always entering the trees at different points. And it's a large area; it covers several square miles."
Kath frowned. "Didn’t you send in agents?"
"Of course we did. But we don't have many assets in Colorado in the first place, and those we do have aren't exactly top-notch. We save the good ones for the vortices, dimensional pockets, the nexuses."
"Suit yourself. In any case, those assets in the area got next to nothing on the group."
Kath looked at Will, who looked back. "But you had their location. You had the vehicles they use. It's been narrowed down to an area of a few square miles. How could you not have gotten anything on these people?"
Jones cleared his throat. "The trackers we place on their cars vanish. We can't set up watchers in the forest because they always take different routes in. We can't follow them in without sending them an engraved invitation to our funerals."
"And you think we'll be more successful?"
"You could say that. You could also say that the kind of people hired by the F.I.B. wouldn't know subtlety if it stuck a knife in their backs."
"So what should we do on arrival?"
"We’ve already got a room booked in Denver. Tomorrow morning, you can head to the storehouse downtown, and from there into Chevette. They make regular food runs, and the next is tomorrow."
"The F.I.B. storehouse. We’ve got one in every major city, particularly cities near points of high paranormal activity. Denver is not such a point, but it’s still up-to-date with our latest. There’s weapons and vehicles there, plus sleeping quarters and rations if you don’t trust the motels."
"We’ll take our chances."
"Find where they come from, and where they go to. We’ve got three days at best."
The transmission cut off. Will flipped the phone closed. "That was informative."
"In more ways than one." Kath tapped the phone on the tray table. "Anything about that conversation seem odd to you?"
"Besides the fact that Jones was most likely lying to us about sending out assets?"
Kath stared at him.
Will shrugged. "I'm an actor. I recognize other actors. Simple as that. When he told us that he'd sent out other agents, it just sounded…I could hear him lying. Most likely explanation is that he never sent them."
Kath sat back again. "So why tell us that he's sent assets…if he hasn't?"
"To give us an ego boost? We can't do it, but a bunch of college students with no training or practical experience can?"
"This is Jones we're talking about. Jones couldn't boost anyone's ego. He's physically unable to stop frowning."
Will picked up his glass, fiddled with it, set it back down. "Then why? I mean, he's head of the most powerful organization that doesn't exist. He can put a man on the moon in twenty minutes. Why couldn't he send half a dozen agents to Colorado?"
Kath picked up her cell phone and started dialing. "Get in on the line."
"Who're you calling?"
Kath held the phone to her ear. "Who else?"
The phone rang, and kept ringing. Kath checked her watch. It was near eleven in Billberg, and Rikk's upbringing had frowned upon late nights…
He picked up on the sixth ring. "Kath?" he said.
"Will and I just had a briefing from Jones." She gave him the details, during which Rikk listened silently.
"That's all of it?" he said, when she was done.
"All the important parts."
"Sounds like Jones has been doing his homework."
"Well, therein lies the problem, Rikk," Will said. "I listened to Jones talk. I've listened to him before. I know when he's lying, and I think he was lying now."
"You think he's giving you false data?"
"Maybe. All I know is that I heard a tremor when he mentioned sending in agents."
"A tremor? You heard a tremor? Do you trust your feelings?"
Kath's brow furrowed. Rikk's voice, when he said that…it was harsh, scathing, disbelieving. Skeptical.
"I know what I heard," Will growled. "I've been picking up lies ever since my kindergarten teacher told me how proud she was of me. Jones never sent any agents."
There was silence for a moment.
"Kath?" Rikk said. "What's your opinion on this?"
Kath shot a glance at Will, whose eyes were one-dimensional slits. "I…I trust Will. I think he's right."
"You mean, you think Jones is lying to us? Deliberately misleading us?" Rikk's voice had an edge Kath thought impossible: an edge of command, of control.
"You're damned right I think that. I know that. You remember, back when he called us? He asked about Alisin, even though the doctor had already called the F.I.B. Either he's misleading us or he can't answer his own phone."
"Why would he do that? There's no logic to it."
Kath bit back a comment about not trying to tell her about logic, and said, "That's what I mean. Jones has information but never sent any agents, and he never got the call about Alisin."
"What's your point?"
"My point is that we're finally seeing something I expected to see long ago." Kath inhaled. "The F.I.B. has divisions. The right hand doesn't know what the left is doing. Jones is the head of the organization from our point of view, but then again, he's just our handler. He knows the setup, but someone else sent the agents. We call him with a report, but someone else picks up. Who knows how much control he has inside?"
There was another pause, much longer this time. Will flexed the fingers of his free hand.
'So what does this mean to us?" Rikk finally said.
"Nothing, right now. We continue along like before. We do this mission. But we keep our eyes open. If Jones is losing his power…or if he never had power to begin with…"
"All right. Go ahead. I'll try to dig up what I can back home. But I want daily status reports from both of you. On secured lines." A pause. "Be careful."
The line went dead.
Will closed up the phone and set it down gently, as if it were liable to detonate any second.
Kath couldn't bring herself to say anything. All she could think about was what Rikk had said to Will: Do you trust your feelings?
It kept running through her mind, a broken record, and she suddenly realized that the Rikk on the phone was in no way connected to the Rikk she had known yesterday.
What had changed?
Who had changed him?
Kath tried to relax, and enjoy the flight.
* * *
"Is that a tower pattern?"
"I think it’s a nodal point…lemme check."
The wires twirled intricately about each other, studded with gems and ornaments like rubies of a crown, forming a net, a web of vast power and infinite design, a construct of such strength and power it defied the puny notion of wires themselves.
Tim, with delicacy, touched the I/O probe to one of the points on the spider’s web of fibers and optics. One of the screens sprouted a field of code, deep and thick.
"It’s nodal. My mistake."
"Complicated, too. Must be a center."
Tim looked up at the image of Guthrie, thin and bespectacled, peering into the array of images at his home computer. Guth may have left over the break, but telecommunications was the eternal friend of hackers.
Tim leaned back in his chair. Strewn about before him were the remains of the small beige box from QuanTech, wires and ports and connections all asunder. For the past hour and a half he’d been analyzing what he could from this tiny thing with the help of Guthrie, and the sum total of their knowledge so far was more than nothing but far less than anything.
Tim swiveled over the glass and inspected the wire pattern. It was complicated, and almost certainly a center—at least four distinct lines in, and he could trace three more out. The fourth was hiding in the dense network, refusing to show itself.
Guth cleared his throat. "If that is a central point, should we try a trace? Simple electric would do it, I think…"
"Naw. It wouldn’t hold enough. I’m doin' an image map now…" Tim typed a series of keys. In the magnified image onscreen, glowing lines traced the fibers leading both in and out, scanning along the wires as best they could. A fourth line appeared after all the others, leading straight into…
"The box." Guth sighed. "That makes a total of twelve."
At the very center of the parts arrayed about the table was a single black box, constituting nearly one-half of the total volume. It was hermetically sealed, and more—no seams could be found, no holes or open spaces. Lines went in, and out, but the outer surface was smooth as glass. Short of throwing it against a wall, neither Tim nor Guth could think of a way of opening the thing.
Tim scratched his head. "Twelve. That takes the cake. I dunno, Guth…maybe this is out of our league."
"I’m inclined to agree with you. This system approaches nanoscopic levels. Testing every node would take months."
The door opened, and Rikk came through. He had the cell phone in his hand. "Tim. Guth." He nodded to them in turn.
Tim gestured to the phone. "Didja get Kath?"
"Yes. She thinks Jones is acting a little funny, maybe even trying to hide something. I think she’s being paranoid, but…" He shrugged, leaving the sentence open.
"Nemmine that. We got news on this box." Tim waved Rikk over to the desk and showed him the remains of the device.
"We’ve been able to dissect most of the external components," said Guth, "but tracing the wiring is proving problematic."
"All the wires lead into this," Tim said, holding up the black box-within-a-box, still trailing all its leads, "which doesn’t make any sense. This’s set up like a normal computer in the outer stuff, but beyond that…"
"There are wires from the outer ports in, and from jack to jack, and power supply—but it’s missing everything further in."
Rikk looked up from the box. "What do you mean, missing everything?"
"Well, there are the normal parts of a computer, necessary to its functioning. Motherboard, processor, memory, and so on. The workings, the guts of a computer. The computer part of it." Guth pointed to the box through his screen. "They are all gone. No motherboard, no chips, nothing to compute with. Or at least, this box is where you’d expect them to be."
"All the stuff that should lead to the chips just leads to this thing," Tim continued. "I mean, maybe if ya miniaturized it, really miniaturized it, down ta molecule-scale, maybe this thing could hold it all. But that’s a stretch."
"Even the wiring is nonstandard," Guth said, and his image changed to a close-up of the silvery knots. "It’s so fantastically elaborate…very little wasted power or space. It even incorporates a heat-sink coolant system that’s unlike any other, almost approaching perpetual motion. Its power requirements are less than a digital watch. The only other place I’ve ever seen work like this was with Thack."
Rikk bent down to the desk again. "You think this is Thack’s design?"
"Possibly. If he had developed an ultra-miniaturized processor, which I don’t put past him. He was a genius, after all."
" Was. Right now he’s a vegetable in F.I.B. central." Rikk paused. "So does it actually work?"
"Well, there’s the conundrum. Show him, Tim."
Tim reattached several of the wires and hooked a number of the jacks into his own computer. He flexed his fingers over his keyboard. "Right now, this thing’s on pure I/O. Punch in a number, get somethin’ out."
He typed an 8, hit return, and an 8 appeared at the other side of the screen.
"If it’s just a number, you get out the original again. The basics. It’s like a computer with everythin’ stripped off—operating system, programs, basic code, everything." As he spoke, Tim typed in 2+2, and paused. "But this can only take single numbers. If you try to put in a computation, well…"
He hit return. Immediately the screen flooded with numbers, line after line of digits appearing. 155861, 34, 9745, 3F2, 90É42?, 7732984, 61…the list piled up, overflowing all the screens of the display.
"You get out a whole buncha numbers. Some of ‘em aren’t even numbers."
"It’s as if it’s attempting to give us multiple possible solutions, depending on what base we use or what symbolic notation—but an incredible number of solutions. The list stretches into the millions for single-digit addition, the tens of millions for subtraction…I have no doubt the multiplication we attempted would have given us billions had we not shut it off."
"But this isn’t even a calculator, then. From Tim’s description, QuanTech was tying up millions in computer hardware to analyze this. I can’t imagine why they’d waste such technology if it doesn’t do a thing."
"That’s why I suspect the system to be incomplete. My theory is that it requires something else to run, a program, or perhaps an algorithm—one that will produce one answer only, from which you could build everything else you need."
Tim frowned. Algorithm, he thought.
"The transportation of this device may have erased this hypothetical program from its memory," Guth continued. "Assuming it even has memory, that is. There is still very much that is inexplicable about this whole caper."
"Well, get what you can." Rikk stood up. "I don’t know what this will all turn out to be, but I’m sure it’s important somehow. If you need me again, just call."
He left then, not waiting for a reply. Guth wrinkled his brow.
"He seems different to me, Tim. I mean, I am certainly no expert in people, but still…" He turned about. "Tim?"
Algorithm. Super-cooled. The fastest computer in the world…
"Fire up the outbound line, Guth." Tim leapt at the keys, hammering out a long string. A search function.
"Certainly. Where to?"
"I want to look at those sites. The ones that got crashed last night."
Guth tilted his head. "Why?"
"I’m goin’ fishing."
* * *
Noiselessly his fingers swept the keys. Tables and data piled before his eyes, lists and scrolls of movement and action. Numbers and strings and bits, all cascading down, tracking the real world without quite being there. All of it, a river through the computers of the F.I.B., an eternal flow.
He brought up the map. Starlight points glimmered on it. Seven points. They shone dimly off the blank squares of glass covering his eyes.
Two, in the west, the signals of the trackers in the cell phones overlapping. Kath and Will, in their hotel in Denver.
Four, to the east, also close together. Magnification showed the spaces between. Two, there, in the same room. Rikk and Alisin’s, though Alisin herself was not there. Another, in a different dorm. Rumiko’s. And another, nearby—Tim’s phone.
Elsewhere, Shanna’s phone, in her apartment.
He tapped a key, and the sound of soft snoring could be heard clearly, transmitted down the line from a phone that wasn’t supposed to be on. That would be Will, down for the night. Kath’s phone gave the same sound.
Another phone. Rikk’s, this time. A pencil scratching across a paper. Assignments, perhaps, or plans for the future. Whose future?
He tapped into another receiver. A muted television. Shanna, still awake—watching something?
Rumiko’s yielded silence for a moment, but as he listened, the barest noise of crying came through. Upset over something—over what? Related to her disappearance?
Through Tim’s, though, came the click of computer keys. Still awake, then, and online. A trace could determine his whereabouts.
The map changed, becoming an abstract painting, a cubist masterwork of interlocking servers and stations. The only true map of the internet.
A line glowed green. Tim. It snaked throughout the webs, faster than the eye could trace, moving at a speed only the greatest hackers could match.
The addresses were logged. He compared the tables. The servers being searched—all had been taken down in the attack last night. Tim, searching for data on a computer crash…why? It served no visible purpose right now, none of their missions. But perhaps it was related to his other research…
Mr. White smiled, in the darkness. All would make sense. All would converge.
Another set of eyes, elsewhere, in a different darkness. Eyes older than any structure of man, older than man himself. They were deep, and old, and tired, but their strength did not wane.
It saw a map as well, and the map was the world, with points that shone bright. There were many, and some were near, but others were far. And other points did not shine, like holes in the light. But the eyes could see them, too, for they were the keys.
There was one, far off, on the other side of the world. A man-thing, young and soft and foolish. He held no power now, but he might gain power.
Elsewhere, a second point of darkness. Closer, yet still far off. It was not a man-thing; it was something new and different. The eyes could not discern its nature.
The third point…
The third point was everywhere, in a way impossible to describe. It was constantly around the world, everywhere at once, all here and there, in bits and streams, moving across another plane.
No matter. The points would converge. All points converge. Things change. It is their nature.
The eyes closed, in their darkness.
Chapter 3 Chapter 5
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